Upward to Defeat

William Ewart Gladstone
William Ewart Gladstone; drawing by David Levine

“As I have done with that most offensive part of my task, the imposition of taxation, I feel as it is said men are wont to feel—and as some of us have felt—when they have ended their long upward journey and reached at length the summit of the Alps. Now I have the downward road before me and the plains of Italy are in my view. I come, then, Sir, to consider the more agreeable subject of the remission of taxation.”

Who but Gladstone could have said this? This is a quotation, well selected by Peter Stansky in his new biographical essay, from the Grand Old Man’s first Budget speech as Chancellor of the Exchequer, in 1853. Who else showed a self-importance as tall as a cathedral, and a wit about as light? The exactitude, the learning, the procession of words in dress uniform…. Disraeli’s jokes about Gladstone are the most hackneyed but still the best: “A sophisticated rhetorician intoxicated with the exuberance of his own verbosity,” and “He has not a single redeeming defect,” and “A ceaseless Tartuffe from the beginning—that sort of man does not get mad at seventy.”

There was something very ridiculous about Gladstone, or, to be more accurate, something specially ridiculous for the two post-Victorian generations who were much concerned to drain the nineteenth century out of the twentieth. A man so grave about himself—and Peter Stansky quotes long, improbable passages of those speeches in which Gladstone bored the House of Commons stiff by proceeding to an examination of his own motives past, present, and to come—offered a large surface of absurdity. The tree-chopping, corresponding to the nail-biting or cigarette-smoking of slighter statesmen; the ambiguous wrestling with prostitutes for their souls and scanning of porn to know the worst; the frightful, Jahveh-like rage when somebody giggled at him in the House—all this has become grotesque, which is to say that the Victorian age is finally passing out of direct memory. Between the world wars the British laughed a great deal, and nervously, about Gladstone. But now the laughter is dying away. And past the man himself, past the personality who reminded everyone of his or her own father, his politics become steadily visible again. Gladstone’s causes are returning. To read Disraeli these days is certainly to find a man of our own times. But to read Gladstone is to recognize, in symptoms less widespread but very clearly defined, the diseases of the British state in 1979.

A hundred years after the Midlothian Campaign, and a century and a quarter after that Budget speech, another British government is claiming to stand at the summit of the Alps and to be able to see the downhill path to Italy. In 1853, Gladstone was breaking with the Tory decades of protection. He was opening the customs barriers to free trade in goods and ideas, claiming to be…

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